As the Ryder Cup comes to Gleneagles, nine days after the referendum, the focus will be very heavily on Scotland. It is only the second time in ten decades of the world’s most popular transatlantic sporting contest that Scotland, known globally as “the home of golf”, has hosted the Cup. There is a local hero to cheer, too, after the late selection of Stephen Gallacher, whose home is less than an hour away from Gleneagles.
So far, so Scottish. But look deeper and this European Ryder Cup team is far more about Ireland than Scotland. The star attraction is Rory McIlroy, fresh from winning back-to-back Majors and undisputedly the world’s best golfer now and, probably, for many years to come.
McIlroy, who after his Ryder Cup debut in 2010 described it as “the best golf tournament in the world,” will be playing alongside his great friend and fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell. And, for the first time since the Cup started in 1927, an Irishman, Paul McGinley, is captain.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve never had so many ticket requests,” says Christy O’Connor Jr, the popular Irish golfer who hit one of the most famous shots in Ryder Cup history when Europe retained the Cup at the Belfry in 1989.
“Men, women, children – everybody wants to be there. There will be thousands of Irish fans at Gleneagles, and when you’re on that first tee they make a deafening roar. They lift you up.”
Among McGinley’s vice-captains is Padraig Harrington, who started a trend when he won the 2007 Open Championship.
That was the first Irish win in 60 years in any of the sport’s four Majors – the Masters, the US Open, the Open and the USPGA. It has been followed by eight more since then, a sensational achievement for an island whose population is far less than that of New York.
Harrington, McDowell, McIlroy and Darren Clarke are the men who won them. All four have contributed hugely to Europe’s successes in the Ryder Cup, as have several more Irish players. Since the fixture changed in 1979, from the USA v GB and Ireland, to the USA v Europe, there have been stellar Irish performances – often in crucial matches – from Eamonn Darcy, Ronan Rafferty, Christy O’Connor Jr, David Feherty, Philip Walton, McGinley himself, and those four Major winners.
O’Connor’s famous shot was a two-iron from 235 yards. It flew over the water at the Belfry’s 18th hole in 1989 and finished four feet from the hole, knocking the stuffing out of his opponent Fred Couples, who was world number one at the time. It was such a memorable moment that when his clubs and other equipment were auctioned for charity, they raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“All I have left is a cover for my driver,” says O’Connor, who has been as a supporter to all but one of the Ryder Cups since 1989, and who will be cheering at this year’s contest in Gleneagles.
There were Irish stalwarts in the postwar years of American dominance, too, most notably O’Connor’s uncle, also named Christy. Thomas Bjorn, a Ryder Cup stalwart, says simply, “The Irish seem to win Ryder Cups.”
“Irish golf has always had plenty of role models and no shortage of very good golfers, but it just seems to have grown at a greater pace in recent times,” says Clarke, who will be part of the Sky Sports commentary team.
We’ve always enjoyed match play and we’ve always enjoyed a good scrap on the golf course so those are fairly good qualities to take into the Ryder Cup. I’d never say one country has contributed more than any other, but I will say that Ireland has never let Europe down and hopefully that will continue for a very long time.
“Padraig did a magnificent job in taking the game in Ireland to a much higher level, and while Graeme and myself have weighed in with grand slam titles, Rory has really picked up the baton. Who knows what he’s going to achieve before he’s finished?
“I have known Rory since his early teens [he came through the Darren Clarke Golf Foundation] and it was obvious even then that here was a talent that only comes along a few times every century. It’s amazing that at 25 he’s only one Major away from completing a personal grand slam and he might complete it at the Masters next spring. It’s impossible to overstate what influence he is having on the game and not just in Ireland, but all over the globe. Rory will go just as far in the game as he wants to.”
O’Connor agrees. “He is one of the three greatest players now – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and now Rory. The biggest factor in his success this year is that he has become a wonder- ful putter. From tee to green he is the best I’ve ever seen, and now his putting must be very nearly as good as Tiger’s. He’s phenomenal.”
McDowell, who recently became a father for the first time and will be making his fourth appearance for Europe, has an impressive Ryder Cup record and earned the match- winning point the last time the Cup was hosted in Britain, at Celtic Manor in 2010. In the same year he won the US Open.
McDowell and McIlroy are both British, but have opted to represent Ireland, if selected, when golf returns to the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Golf, like rugby union, hockey and boxing, among others, is an “all-Ireland” sport governed by one body. “I grew up wanting to wear the Irish blazer, the green and the gold,” McDowell has said. “To me, sport has no religious boundaries. It has no political boundaries. Sport is just sport.”
McGinley’s Ryder Cup contribution is remarkable. He was a player in the victorious teams of 2002, 2004 and 2006, and sank the match-winning putt on the 18th green in 2002. He was vice-captain for the victories in 2010 and 2012, and will be gunning for his sixth success next week, this time in a third role as captain. He has twice captained GB and Ireland in the Seve Trophy, against continental Europe, and is described by McIlroy as “the best captain I have ever played under”.
McGinley has “always been aware of the history of Irish golfers in the Ryder Cup and always wanted to be a part of the team. I certainly feel a bond with every player who has ever played in a Ryder Cup team.”
He might have been a Gaelic footballer rather than a golfer but for a knee injury. He studied marketing and management in Dublin, worked for the EC in Brussels for a year, then studied business in the United States before turning professional at the relatively late age of 25.
“I have always performed highly when in a team,” McGinley has said. “I think it relates back to my Gaelic football days. I don’t know what the X factor is, but I seem to go to another level in team golf.”
It was a long wait for an Irishman to be named captain. “I’m not sure it’s been unfair to Ireland that we haven’t had a captain before, more likely that nobody put themselves forward,” says Clarke, who, like McGinley, was a vice-captain in 2012 and made a rival bid for the captaincy this time round. The leadership contest created a rivalry between the two former team-mates, but it seems any rift has been forgotten.
“Paul made it very clear that he wanted a crack at it and he’s been doing the kind of job I expected of him ever since he got it – extremely thorough and professional. Let’s hope he is the first of many.”
The first Irish golfer to play in the Ryder Cup was Fred Daly in 1947, the year he won the Open championship. O’Connor’s uncle, Christy Senior, played in ten straight Ryder Cups from 1955 and feels he should have been captain at some point.
His playing partner for years was Peter Alliss, now the voice of golf on the BBC. Alliss, who played in eight Ryder Cups, says, “Christy was one of the best shotmakers I’ve ever seen, even now, and a wonderful partner. He was a legend of Irish golf, of golf generally. He was fearless.”
The Irish players were always a welcome presence, says Alliss. “They bought into the team ethos and helped enormously with team spirit in all the teams I played in. They were very good on the course and in the dressing room. Over the years Ireland’s contribution to the Ryder Cup must be on the same level as Spain’s.”
That is quite an accolade, given the hugely significant role played in the “modern” Ryder Cup by the late Severiano Ballesteros, spiritual leader of the Europe team.
Gleaneagles holds happy memories for O’Connor Sr: he spent his honeymoon there 60 years ago. He will watch this year’s contest at home with his wife, Mary, 87.
“He still follows the game very, very closely,” says his nephew, Christy O’Connor Jr, “and he correctly predicted the team for this year, man for man.”
Did he give a match prediction, too?
“Yes. He says that if Europe play their best, they will win. I agree with him.”
How to watch the Ryder Cup:
Live TV: Sky Sports Ryder Cup
The only place to watch the action live on TV. Sky Sports 4 will become Sky Sports Ryder Cup, and will show live coverage of all three days’ play, plus the opening and closing ceremonies.
TV highlights: BBC
BBC2 will show highlights every night, starting on Friday (8.30pm), Sat and Sun (7.30pm, times subject to change). Available on iPlayer afterwards.
Radio 5 Live will be based in Gleneagles. Nicky Campbell hosts the breakfast show, with live coverage from 9am.